Excerpt for Franklin: The Promise (Tales of the Executioners) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Tales of the Executioners:

FRANKLIN:

The Promise


A short story

By Joleene Naylor



http://www.joleenenaylor.com

Joleene@joleenenaylor.com


First Smashwords Edition, 2017


Copyright 2017 by Joleene Naylor

Published by Smashwords


Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Cover art courtesy of Canstockphoto, and johnnorth

Cover by Joleene Naylor


Find Joleene Naylor on Smashwords at: http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/joleenenaylor



Ramblings from the Darkness at http://www.joleenenaylor.com

You never know what you’ll find in the shadows…..


Tales of the Executioners:

Aine: Another Complication

Ark: Echo from the Past

Verchiel: Never Ending Question

Beldren: What We Deserve

Byrn: At Christmas

Bren: In the Dark

Lisiantha: Home for Christmas

Cyprus: Future’s Promise

Daniel: Black Luck

Dismas: Prayers of the Damned

Franklin: The Promise


* * * * * * * * * *

Other books by Joleene Naylor:

Amaranthine:

0: Brothers of Darkness

1: Shades of Gray

2: Legacy of Ghosts

3: Ties of Blood

4: Ashes of Deceit

5: Heart of the Raven

6: Children of Shadows

7. Clash of Legends

8. Masque of the Vampire

9: Goddess of Night


Also:

Vampire Morsels Collection: 17 Short Stories


101 Tips for Traveling with a Vampire by Joleene Naylor


Heart of the Raven Mini Prologue Collection

Tales from the Island: Six Short Stories

Thirteen Guests: A Masque of the Vampire companion

Road to Darkness: A short story companion to Brothers of Darkness


COMING SOON:

Tales of the Executioners




* * * * * * * * * *


Thanks to Chris Harris and Bonnie Mutchler for their ninja-like proofreading skills.



* * * * * * * * * *


What is an Executioner ?

The Executioners are the vampire’s equivalent of special police. They go on “assignments” that The Guild (the vampire government) sends them on, and they don’t have a reputation for being very nice. It’s a reputation that is often well deserved.


For more on Executioners and the universe they live in, check out the Amaranthine series by Joleene Naylor.


* * * * * * * * * *



This is the eleventh in a collection of short stories, Tales of the Executioners. Each story is about a different Executioner from the Amaranthine universe.


Franklin became an Executioner in 1893, after Kateesha’s revolt, along with Migina and Krill. This story takes place during Shades of Gray.


This story may contain violence, strong language, sexual content or other disturbing scenes and is not intended for a young audience.


* * * * * * * * * *


WARNING: If you haven’t read Shades of Gray, this story contains HUGE spoilers, including a pivotal scene from the book (told through a different point of view). Proceed at your own risk.


Franklin opened one eye cautiously, trying to feign sleep. Since he was a sun walker, Migina should know he’d woken some time ago, but maybe she wasn’t thinking about it.

That or she’s teasing me.

He watched as she stood in front of the full length mirror, brushing her waist length hair. The ebony strands were a pleasing contrast with her pale caramel skin – a complexion paled by immortality. He would have liked to see her before she was turned; racing over the plains, wearing buckskin and feathers. Of course, she’d told him that it wasn’t really like that. Not that his own experiences hadn’t taught him that. He’d run into what they now termed Native Americans before, when he was a fledgling. He liked to think of her in the Hollywood costumes, anyway.

Or better, out of them.

Her tone was cool, and she didn’t bother to turn around when she said, “I know you’re awake.”

He tried to fake it a moment longer, then surrendered. “What gave it away?”

“You’re breathing again.”

He silently cursed his inattentiveness. Of course. As a vampire, he no longer needed to breathe to live, but for some reason it was a habit he hadn’t been able to kick yet when he was awake. “All right. You caught me.” He slipped from the bed and moved to wrap his arms around her from behind, pulling her to him, skin against skin. “Can you blame me?”

“I could try.” Her cold mask slipped as a smile tugged at the corners of her lips. “You’re ridiculous.”

“I try.” He pressed a kiss to her cheek and released her reluctantly. “I suppose I should pack.”

Migina stopped brushing to eye him. “If it wasn’t for Senya…”

“Yeah, yeah. If Senya wasn’t in charge I’m sure you’d have been chosen to go. But since she is, she chose a lovely all-male escort.”

Migina scoffed. “And among them are her lovers, no doubt. Bren and Greneth?”

Franklin tugged on a pair of trousers and ruffled his golden brown hair. “I’m not sure Greneth has made the leap yet, but everyone knows she uses Bren when it suits her.”

“She’d be happy to use all of you.” Migina gave him a glare laced with a warning. “I’ve heard stories about her orgies.”

“Mostly fabricated, I’m sure.” Franklin paused to drop a kiss on Migina’s shoulder, then moved to his closet for a bag and some clothes. “Senya’s too cold, unlike you, my wild Indian princess.”

She rolled her eyes and purposefully turned her back, though he could see her quiet smile reflected in the mirror. He mentally congratulated himself as he stuffed items into an overnight bag. Senya had said two or three days at the most but, considering their prey, it might stretch longer. There was only one name, one so-called villain, which would require five of The Guild’s elite police force.

Jorick. The Hand of Death. Fledgling of the High Council’s leader, Malick. Jorick had been the head of the Executioners for nearly two hundred years before he’d retired. Not long after his departure, he’d returned, cutting down everyone who stood between himself and his master. Franklin had only been a guard then, and thankfully hadn’t been on duty, but he’d heard the stories and seen the wounded. That one vampire could do such a thing by himself…it was the stuff of legends.

Or it was in the retelling. Franklin sometimes wondered if his memory was to be trusted as much as he thought. Reason said it must not be, but still…

He shook it off and turned his attention to folding a shirt. In the end, even after all the carnage, Malick had allowed Jorick to leave. That was the last anyone had seen of him for more than a hundred years. Or at least the last time anyone really noted seeing him. The Guild’s records proved he hadn’t vanished completely, but rather lived in Maine with a fledgling. Still, if he was involved in the whole sordid kidnapping business, then maybe it was more than they thought…

He finished packing and pulled Migina into his arms for a final goodbye kiss. “I shall see you when I return.”

“Do you promise?”

“I promise I will return.”

She kissed the lobe of his ear and whispered, “I’ll be waiting.”

Though he didn’t say it as he strode out the door, he doubted she’d be there when he got back. A fellow Executioner, it was more likely that she’d be sent on an assignment of her own by then. He was surprised that she’d been home for two days straight – that they both had. They spent more time out in the field than they did in the citadel.

We need more than twelve Executioners, he mused. Or we need to hand more off to the guards, like we used to.

He headed above ground, to a gravel parking lot. Chilly October air weaved between the grain bins and many outbuildings that made up the citadel’s exterior, passing over a group of vampires.

Franklin did a quick head count of the guards. Twelve? The standard was two per Executioner, and sometimes just one. With only five executioners, they had two extra guards. Did they need that many?

It’s Jorick, he reminded himself.

Most of the guards wore their Guild issued black and silver uniforms, while four stood apart dressed in plain clothes. Senya’s favorites, Franklin mused. If he was good he could have pulled up their names because she so often requested them.

The vampiress herself was still absent, but Franklin noticed that Zuri – short and stocky with a shock of black hair – and Greneth – slender and blonde with a permanent sneer – were both present.

He nodded to them and took a place nearby. Greneth glanced up from a red bound book and then back again, tapping the page with his pencil.

“Another poem?” Franklin asked conversationally.

The blonde made an airy gesture, as if to say “you wouldn’t understand,” then quoted, “Leaves are on the ground, fall has come, while waiting for winter’s queen, to bring with her icy wind and raging numb.”

The syllables felt wrong, but Franklin knew better than to correct him. Luckily, he was saved by Senya and Bren’s arrival. Tall for a woman, Senya’s black bobbed hair, cut almost comically straight, made her skin look paler and her blue eyes icier. If Greneth was looking for a personification of winter’s queen, she was right there.

“The Execution Council will meet us later.” Senya swept her eyes over them, stopping at last on her favorite guards. “If you’re ready?”

Though they all agreed, Franklin shot Zuri a look and mouthed, “Execution Council?”

His fellow executioner shrugged, then fell into step with the others, moving towards several SUVs. Franklin did the same, his brain churning. An Execution Council was a tool rarely used by The Guild anymore. Made up of members from the Lesser Council, the council would accompany Executioners on assignments where immediate judgements needed to be made – cases where they couldn’t wait for someone to be dragged back to the citadel and put on trial. Executioners had a free pass to kill under most circumstances by simply saying that their victim had interfered in some way, but an Execution Council was a step further. Despite the official designations, their true purpose was to give Executioners permission to slaughter everyone without needing to make excuses. If they were coming, it meant this wasn’t an assignment, but a blood bath.

Franklin climbed inside a vehicle and tried to relax as it thumped over gravel roads to a rural airport – a large rural airport, whose runways had been expanded to handle The Guild’s private jets. Though how all of them were going to fit in one jet was a mystery. Franklin was pretty sure their maximum capacity was twelve.

They disembarked, and Senya answered the question. “The guards will take a plane to Virginia and wait for us. We– ” she motioned to the Executioners and her four favorites, “ –will stop in New York first. I’d like to speak to Claudius myself.”

They boarded the planes. Overstuffed seats, small tables, a kitchen, and sofa made it look more like a meeting room than a vehicle. Franklin inhaled the scent of leather upholstery and took a seat near a shuttered window. Greneth dropped next to him, the red book open again, pencil between his lips.

Franklin leaned over to see the poem in progress. The mention of an Eskimo had done nothing to help the prose, and Franklin bit back a snicker as he settled in for a quick flight.

***

By the time they landed at a New York airport, Franklin was thoroughly sick of Greneth, his poem, and his artsy airs. The only amusement had been seeing the blonde shoot dagger looks at Bren’s back. Every time Senya leaned close to whisper into Bren’s ear, Greneth’s narrowed eyes got tighter, and a little muscle ticked in his jaw.

Maybe Migina’s right about them? Though I always thought he favored Griselda.

Franklin made a mental note to mention it when he called Migina later, and exited the plane. The airport was on the outskirts of a small town whose lights twinkled in the darkness. The facility’s lights blazed – runway lights, pole lights, even the windows of the buildings were bright – but there was no other sign of life. No vampires, or cars, waiting for them.

Senya made an impatient noise and motioned to her guards. As though they were psychic – and maybe they were, Franklin didn’t know their names or their talents – one quickly snapped their phone on. In less than a minute, he was threatening someone on the other end.

“We expect transportation to arrive immediately. Your coven requested our presence. The least you can do is contribute what is asked of you.”

A few murmured sounds told Franklin that the vampire on the other end had capitulated. The guard hung up and announced, “They’ll be here post haste.”

“They’d better.” Bren crossed his arms. “Claudius may be an old vampire, but he doesn’t have as much political power as he thinks – certainly not enough to make us wait.”

Senya broke into angry agreement, while Franklin nudged Zuri. “This Claudius…Is he the one I think he is?”

“The one who’s been complaining for years?” Zuri asked.

Franklin nodded. “He has a large coven?”

Zuri tugged out his cellphone and opened the Executioner app. A few clicks and a swipe, then he held the phone out for Franklin to see. He skimmed the information:

“Fledgling of Francoise (deceased)… turned in the 1500s in France…immigrated…coven fifty plus…multiple dens… mate, Arowenia…fledglings: Arowenia, Kale…quite a list there. Known associates…known antagonists…Oh wow. Now that’s really a list…Though I don’t see Jorick’s name.”

“He’s new.” Zuri flipped the phone back around. “See this Oren mentioned here? He’s Jorick’s fledgling. They’ve been at it since the 80s, so I’d guess Jorick finally got involved. If he really is involved, that is.”

Franklin nodded as Zuri slipped his phone back into his pocket. He also doubted that the Hand of Death had suddenly come out of retirement for a minor skirmish. But then, stranger things had happened. Maybe he was bored after more than a hundred years lying low?

I would be.

Two vans arrived, one driven by a redhead, and the other by a stocky bald guy. Franklin could sense the alpha attitude from the later, and slipped into the backseat just behind Bren. This was likely to be interesting.

“It took you long enough,” Bren snapped as he got comfortable. “Next time I assume you’ll be on time – as ordered.”

The driver scoffed. “Ordered by who, huh? Claudius is my master, and he didn’t say shit to me about picking you up. He probably assumed that with all The Guild’s resources you could handle driving yourselves.”

Bren snarled. “What’s your name?”

The driver chortled. “Troy, fledgling of O’Cuinn.”

“You said Claudius was your master!”

“He’s the coven master. Don’t you guys do your research, or do you just fly in blind?”

“Watch your tone, Troy, fledgling of O’Cuinn, or I may find you an interference.”

Troy fired the van up. “You go right ahead and do that. Then you can drive yourselves.”

They took off, spraying gravel. Franklin glanced to the guard at his elbow, but the vampire didn’t seem amused. He missed Migina. She’d have found the display hilarious.

Bren made a show of removing his gloves in short, choppy motions, then called The Guild to loudly report that they were “-finally en route to the den. Make a note that Claudius did not even provide adequate transportation, despite being ordered to. Also make a note of Troy, fledgling of O’Cuinn as potentially needing dealt with.”

There was more, but Franklin tuned it out to watch silent countryside pass by outside; dark hillsides kissed by moonlight. He’d seen thousands of similar landscapes, had ridden through them, walked through them, gazed out the window at them. He had dim memories of looking through wavy glass on such a scene, the sound of dogs baying in the background. His mother’s hand rested briefly on his back and she whispered for him to go to bed. There was nothing out there in the darkness. Everything was safe.

How could she know what was really there, hiding in the dark?

The hounds had known – or had at least sensed the monsters. Their howls had fallen away one by one, and then the footsteps came. Franklin had been in bed by then, the rough blanket pulled up over his head. His mother had shushed his trembling, and told him to hide under the bed, her voice shaking with fear. Not that he could remember the sound of her voice anymore, or even what she looked like, only that she’d had the same eyes he did, and the same pointed chin.

The rest of his memories were just as vague. There was the dusty smell under the bed, the sound of his father’s gun firing. His mother’s scream. Then, more footsteps. Finally, a pair of dirty boots had stopped next to the bed. The toes were scuffed. Slowly, knees had bent, then a hand shot underneath and dragged him out into the open. He’d probably screamed – or maybe he’d been too scared to move. It was hard to say. But that was when he first saw Kelly, the vampire who would become a sort of surrogate father and later go on to give him immortality.

A very twisted surrogate father.

Franklin dismissed the memories as the den came into view. A single story brick building squatted in a gravel parking lot, lit by a pole light and surrounded by cars. After skimming Claudius’ description, it wasn’t the kind of den he’d anticipated. A mansion would have been more fitting.

It just shows you can never tell.

They parked and climbed out. Franklin hung back near Zuri while Senya gave them another once over; checking that everyone had made it.

She pivoted towards Troy, her thin lips twisted in a sneer. “Does Claudius have accommodations prepared for us, should this prove to run long?”

Troy scoffed. “I doubt it.”

“He was ordered to be ready,” Bren barked, earning a hard look from Senya.

“As my…companion stated, Claudius was informed,” she bit out. “I suggest you run and get to him before we do. Make sure he has things ready before we reach him.”

Troy eyed her up and down. “I don’t run for anyone, doll face, especially not The Guild.”

Bren snapped angry fangs, but Senya pulled him back. “Later. We have an interview to conduct now.”

She tugged him toward the building, and the others followed. Though Troy sauntered just ahead of them, the redheaded driver hurried inside. Franklin imagined he was warning his master.

Despite that warning, there was no welcome committee inside, just a narrow hallway with a door halfway down its length, and a set of stairs at the opposite end. Franklin could smell the immortality below; the group of vampires waiting in a cluster. He concentrated and could hear the pitter pat of the redhead’s voice, explaining that the Executioners were there and in “a bad mood.”

Senya stopped at the head of the stairs and called down, “Any foul mood on our part is your fault.” She strolled down, her long black coat sweeping behind her like an evil villainess’ cape. “I assume you have an appropriate excuse?”

Franklin followed Bren down the stairs behind her. A chandelier, bizarrely out of place, threw patterned light over a large concrete basement. Several vampires, including the redhead, were clustered around a high backed wicker chair. The only piece of furniture in the room, it sat directly under the light, like a makeshift throne. In it sat a vampire who looked no more than nineteen. Blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and green eyes were hooded by thoughtful lids. They were the kind of eyes that were either calculating your strengths, or else wanted you to think they were.

“Claudius, I presume?” Senya asked, as the last of them reached the floor to stand in front of the young man.

Claudius drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair for a moment, before finally sweeping to his feet. “What are you doing here? I requested you go to Virginia!”

Senya gave an incredulous snort. “Bren, arrest him for wasting our time. The rest of you, back to the airfield.”

Franklin hung back, confused, as Bren closed in on their host and Senya pivoted for the stairs. The young man hopped back a step, face twisted in fury.

“Don’t touch me!”

Senya looked back. “I assume you have an appropriate excuse for why our transportation was not where it was supposed to be?”

The young man tugged at the lace on his sleeves, and sniffed disdainfully. “I’ve never needed to provide transportation before.”

Senya brandished a manila folder. “That’s because they’ve sent the real Executioners this time. Up to now, you’ve been dealing with an imbecile. I can assure you, I’m not as forgiving of slights as he is.”

Claudius gave another sniff, then dropped back into the chair. “The question remains: why are you here and not in Virginia? That’s where they’ve taken Arowenia!”

“So you said.” Senya flipped the folder open and pulled out a sheet of paper. “You contacted The Guild the night of the twenty-second, regarding your mate’s kidnapping? It seems you know her location?”

“Yes!” Claudius smacked the arm of the chair impatiently. “She is being held at Oren’s den in Virginia! Do I need to raise a party and retrieve her myself? Isn’t that what you’re for?”

Senya dismissed his tirade with an eye roll. “Verchiel has been previously assigned to this case, correct?”

Claudius groaned and leaned back in the chair. “Yes! For all the good the idiot has done! I’ve been stuck with him for years.” He straightened and eyed them. “I’d started to think he was the only Executioner left.”

“It’s safe to say you’ve been unhappy with his performance.”

Though Senya obviously meant it a statement, Claudius took the opportunity to smack the chair again and shout, “Yes! That’s why I refused to speak to him the day before yesterday!”

Senya gave a crisp nod and tugged out another piece of paper. “Regarding your mate-”

Claudius gave a low groan. “Should I start at the beginning? Since you seem determined to waste time by going over every moment of the story? My mate was taken – kidnapped – by Oren, Jorick, and Kateesha, as part of an old disagreement. She’s being kept at Oren’s den, in Virginia, and has been there since June! That’s four months! If you can’t do something in that time-”

“If she was taken in June, why did you wait until July to report it?”

Claudius faltered for a moment and Troy stepped forward, arms crossed. “Not that it’s any of your damn business, but he wanted to give the perpetrators time to bring her back on their own. Claudius is magnanimous like that.”

Claudius cleared his throat and tugged at the ruffle at his neck. “Yes. Of course. Considering one of our own was involved, I thought it best to handle it myself.”

Senya rifled through the papers again and paused to read. “Michael, fledgling of Elsa, and a human slave, Patrick, joined your enemy?”

“If you want to call Oren that,” Claudius said dismissively.

“However you said on the twenty-second that Michael had returned? We’d like to speak to him.”

Troy chortled. “That’s a problem, honey, unless you’re planning a séance. After he confessed, we made sure justice was served. Sniveling little shit.”

“Enough,” Claudius snapped, then looked back to Senya. “Michael was found in Jorick’s company, and taken prisoner by my coven. He confessed to helping kidnap my mate, and named Oren’s den as her prison. He also implicated Oren, Jorick, and Kateesha.” Claudius’ face hardened at the final name. “Why she’s involved is beyond me, except that she and Jorick are on-again-off-again lovers.”

“And after Michael told you all of this, you killed him? I assume you burned the body and disposed of it properly?”

“Yes!” Claudius cried. “Are you here to find wrongdoing on my part, or to retrieve Arowenia?”

“Both, or perhaps neither,” Senya said coldly. “I’d like to interview any of your coven that was present for–” she checked the paper again. “For Michael’s interrogation.”

“Or you could leave and retrieve Arowenia while she’s still alive!” Claudius bellowed.

Senya snarled, and Bren stepped forward, a hand up. His smile looked fake, even to Franklin, but Claudius let the Executioner draw close. “We understand you’re agitated, and concerned for your mate’s wellbeing. However…” Bren suddenly grabbed Claudius by the lace at his throat. “If you want The Guild involved, you do things our way, got it?”

Claudius’ eyes bulged in fury. His followers shifted uncomfortably, some with fists at their sides, others looking more scared than angry, but none knew what to do.

Bren released Claudius with enough force to send him back into his chair. “Now. Summon the vampires that need to be interviewed.”


***


Franklin listened to the first three interviews, but the sameness bored him. It was almost as if they were rehearsed; even going so far as to use the same phrase: “Michael betrayed the coven to help Jorick and his fledgling.” What might have been interesting – such as why he betrayed them, or why Oren and the Hand of Death had suddenly decided to take Claudius’ mate over an “old disagreement”, or even some clue about Kateesha’s involvement – were topics Senya and Bren ignored.

I suppose they’re not interested in it.

Claudius skulked in the background, looking angrier and angrier with each passing minute. When Franklin abandoned the interviews, he made a point to walk past the irate vampire and caught a snarled comment to Troy.

“-stop all of this time wasting! If they mean to begin, begin!”

Franklin kept his reply to himself and headed outside. Zuri leaned against the building, arms crossed, eyes closed. He didn’t open them, but still nodded as Franklin stopped next to him.

“The Hand of Death,” he said finally.

Franklin sucked air through his teeth and looked up to the star strewn sky. “And Kateesha, the Tormenter, in the same fight.”

“Did you work with them?” Zuri turned reddish-brown eyes on him.

“I was a guard while they were there, though I never worked an assignment with him, only her. I wasn’t promoted to Executioner until after her revolt.”

Zuri nodded. “I worked with both as a guard, and was made Executioner when she left the first time.”

“You served under her command, then?”

Zuri nodded. “She makes Senya seem sweet. Everything about Kateesha was deadly.”

“I know. And him…”

They fell silent. Franklin knew they were both thinking the same thing: five Executioners wasn’t enough.

Not to fight both of them.


***


Senya and Bren finished their interviews, then Senya took time to threaten Claudius one more time before they climbed back in the vehicles. A short trip later, they were at the airfield again.

“The flight should be just over an hour,” Senya told them as they took seats on the plane. “We’ll meet the others and take shelter for the day. Tomorrow night, we’ll retrieve his prize, assuming she’s even there.”

“You think he’s lying?” Greneth asked with surprise.

“Claudius? No, though I’m sure he’s withholding plenty about these so-called hostilities. He’s been in trouble several times recently for unlawful wars.” She brandished the folder. “His accounts have even been frozen until it can be sorted out. I imagine that has something to do with taking a month to report the kidnapping. No doubt he’s just as guilty as they are. Why else would there be a sudden escalation in a war that’s dragged on for more than twenty years?”

Franklin cocked an eyebrow. “So we’re not going to get involved?”

Senya scoffed. “We’ll follow our orders. We’ll attack Oren’s den, deal with the occupants and, if Claudius’ mate is there, we’ll take her. If not, it won’t be time wasted – not if the rumors are true.”

“What rumors?” Greneth asked.

“Haven’t you heard?” There was hint of mockery in Senya’s tone. “They say Jorick’s fledgling keeps a secret.”

“What secret?” Greneth asked impatiently.

She rolled her eyes. “If that was known, it wouldn’t be a secret!”

Bren snickered, and with a huff Greneth turned back to his little red book.


***


They landed in Virginia, to find vehicles waiting for them. They were driven to a local den, where they met up with the other guards.

After a quick call to the Guild, Bren informed them that the Execution Council would meet them tomorrow. “At Oren’s den,” he added with a glance to Senya.

“They’re too spineless to travel with the warriors,” she said. “It’s a waste of time. It would be better if Malick just gave us permission to kill everyone.”

If we can, Franklin thought.

They bedded down in a room with covered windows. Franklin called Migina for a quick update, and promised to be home soon. “It’s just a battle with two legends. How could it go wrong?”

Though it was a joke, he heard the fear in Migina’s voice, “Don’t engage them. There will be plenty of smaller fish.”

“You doubt my abilities now?” he teased.

It took her a moment too long to answer. “No.”

“Then you doubt my word? I promised you I’d return.”

“Then promise you’ll fight only the weaker ones.”

“Migina…”

“Promise.”

“All right.” He smiled into the phone. “I promise.”


***


Franklin woke just before sunset. In a strange place, he had nowhere to go, so he waited until the others woke to climb to his feet and dust off his coat.

Bren gave one of their hosts a hard look. “Where do you feed?”

“In-in the trees. There’s animals.”

“There are,” Greneth murmured.

Franklin shot him a questioning look, and Greneth repeated, “There are. There are animals. Never mind. Writers are sensitive to poor grammar.”

And so are bad poets, apparently.

Senya checked the app, then told them to feed quickly. “We want to get there early so we have plenty of time.”

Franklin paused to change into his “lucky red suit”, as he called it. Migina had given him the outfit – a top and matching leather pants – for Christmas a few years ago. Since then he’d worn it on assignments that worried her. It was a silly thing, but she said it made her feel better, like she was there with him, protecting him.

Like I really need protected. I am an Executioner.

Dressed, he trooped outside and through the trees. He found a fox quickly and used his abilities to freeze it in place. Unlike a whisperer, who could soothe and calm their victims, a puppet master’s target remained completely aware, just unable to control their body, even as their brain screamed in terror.

He emptied the animal quickly and sat back on his haunches, the smell of dead leaves and undergrowth heavy in his nose. With the smell always came the memory of that night. By the time they’d dragged him from under the bed, his family was already dead. He couldn’t remember exactly what was said, but Kelly had announced something to the effect that they could use a slave. Instead of killing him, they’d taken him with them. He’d escaped once on the way through the dark woods. He clearly remembered running, stumbling, falling face first among the dead leaves. Even now, so many years later, the smell brought back a shadow of the terror he’d felt; a stab of blood scented fear.

Fear Kelly taught him to hide with the lash of a belt.

Or several lashes is more like it.

Franklin pushed away the past and met the others near the house. Senya, phone pressed to her ear, motioned them into the vehicles.

She hung up and swung into the passenger seat. “The Execution Council is en route.” She looked over her shoulder. “We’ll park just down from the den and arrive on foot to prevent a surprise attack from Oren’s coven. The drive will be significant – more than an hour.”

Greneth elbowed Zuri for more space. “Why didn’t we stay closer?”

Senya scoffed. “Because we have no hosts that live nearby. Oren’s coven has been in the same place since before the Civil War. His territory is well known. There have been incidents with those who get too close.”

She tossed a folder back. When Greneth only glanced at it, Franklin snatched it. He scanned the contents; amended lists of known coven members and various reports from over the years. The oldest were handwritten, then done with a typewriter, and finally neatly printed from a digital source. Just as Senya said, Oren’s coven claimed a large territory and defended it fiercely. Almost as if they had something to hide.

No wonder there are rumors.

Still, there were no records of them being random aggressors, or participating in anything like a kidnapping. Though Oren and Claudius had come in contact with one another several times in the past. From what he could see, Claudius had once lived nearby. Still, there were not hostilities until a report, printed by dot matrix, said that Claudius had filed a complaint. Oren’s sister and one of Claudius’ coven fought over a man. The later was killed. The complaint was full of flowery arguments that a handwritten note denied. An Executioner – Verchiel by the handwriting – had deemed the fight legal, commented that Claudius was known to over exaggerate, and added that no legal action would be taken by The Guild. Was that what the root of this was?

Franklin closed the folder and handed it back. If such a small death warranted a war, what did the massacre of your whole family warrant? Should he have killed Kelly?

Not that I didn’t think about it a million times.

With nothing else to do, Franklin turned to thoughts of the upcoming confrontation. He pulled his bag into his lap and dug out a set of daggers and something that looked like a machete in a leather sheath. He tugged it out, double checking that the three square cut notches were clean. They were what gave it the ability to grab a vampire’s heart and rip it out a single move that earned it the title, “heart breaker”.

He jammed it back in the sheath. We’re going to break some hearts tonight, sweetheart.

Hopefully no one breaks mine.


***


It was almost ten when the vehicles pulled over and they climbed out along the side of the road. Franklin’s instincts said to call Migina a final time, but he dismissed it. He’d talk to her when it was over with. She’d only make him promise again that he’d come back alive – a promise he’d already made twice.

The rest of the guards were already waiting, nervous eyes darting to the quiet fields around them, hands curled around various weapons, but there was no sign of the Execution Council.

Senya checked the time impatiently and clicked her phone. A quick conversation later, she snarled and motioned towards lights in the distance. “They’ll meet us there. We’re to refrain from killing anyone until they arrive.”

Bren gaped. “Are you serious? They want us to take Claudius’ mate back without killing anyone? Has Malick gone insane? The Hand of Death is rumored to be there, and the Tormenter. Does he think they’ll hand her over without a fight? Does he think Oren and his coven will-”

Senya scoffed. “It’s because The Hand of Death will be there. Malick can’t risk us hurting his precious son.”

Greneth frowned. “You’re sure it’s because of Jorick?”

“Their exact words were, ‘Malick has a list of those who aren’t to be killed. The Execution Council will share it with you.’ Whose names do you think will be on it, other than Jorick and Kateesha’s?”

“What about Jorick’s fledgling?” Bren asked. “Will he also be exempt?”

“I imagine so, as well as the rest of his bloodline. It’s disgusting.” Senya shook her head. “But no matter. We have a job to do. Let’s do it.”

With a murmur of agreement they headed in the direction of Oren’s den. As a large southern mansion slowly came into view, Franklin turned the orders over. It was disgusting the way the master had favorites, the way the law was enforced when it suited Malick and dismissed when it didn’t. But Malick was ancient – more than two thousand years if the stories were believed – and his age alone gave him the power to rule The Guild.

Senya stopped them at the edge of the property and glanced to Greneth. “I don’t suppose your demon eye ability can see anything useful?”

Greneth drew up. “Of course it does.” He closed his eyes, but as the seconds passed a valley formed between his eyes. “I see a fight. Fire.”

“As if we didn’t know that already,” Senya said with annoyance. “Never mind. If you happen to stumble on a vision of us finding the prisoner, so we can cut this short, I’d appreciate it.” She turned to the group and motioned to half of the guards. “Go left with Zuri. You,” she looked to the others. “Go right with Greneth. Use the signal flares if you’re engaged.”

Her favorites – still not in regulation uniform – moved to join, but she stopped them. “With me.” She looked back to Bren and Franklin. “Come.”

Bren gave a mock salute and grinned, nudging Franklin. “She knows who the better men are.”

Senya shot him a look that said to shut up, then headed toward the house. Lights blazed in the windows. The scent of immortal life hung heavy, mixed with the smell of humans. No doubt the coven had mortal slaves.

An autumn wind swirled past, carrying their own scent to the mansion’s occupants. Lights blinked out in some of the windows, then stopped abruptly.

They know we’re here.

Franklin drew the heartbreaker from its sheath, holding it at the ready as they crept over a curved drive and leaf littered lawn. He tried to peer through the windows, to guess what the flitting shadows inside were doing. Readying to fight? Hiding their prisoner? Burying their secret?

They’d nearly reached the porch when the front door swung open. A tall human stared out at them, eyes wide and hands shaking. Senya stormed toward him, flashing the medallion around her neck. “Who are you, human? Where is your master?”

“Ch-Christian,” the man mumbled. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead. “My master isn’t home.”

Senya grabbed him and in a smooth motion swung him to his knees, his back pressed against her legs, her dagger pressed to his throat. “Do not lie to me, human. Where is your master? And where is his prisoner?”

“What prisoner?” Christian croaked.

Noise came from the right, followed by the flash of a flare. A second flash came from the left.

“So they’re ready for us?” Senya demanded, pulling the human’s head back by his hair. “Where is the prisoner?”

Franklin could taste the man’s fear, smell the terrified blood that pounded through his veins, laced with whisky. “What prisoner?”

Another flare went off, and another. With a snarl, Senya drew back the knife and slammed it through the human’s chest. When she ripped it free a spray of crimson was followed by a horrified scream; the scream of death.

Senya kicked the bleeding body away and pushed inside. A foyer led into a portrait lined hallway. A redheaded vampiress dashed through a door, wearing heels and a slinky dress. Sultry eyes flashed fear and then hardened with anger.

“Who are you and by what right-”

Senya brandished her bloody dagger and closed the distance between them. “By right of The Guild. Identify yourself.”

“I don’t have to tell you anything!” The redhead dropped into a fighting stance, her long nailed hands like readied claws.

“This is going to be tedious.” Senya lunged in a move similar to what she’d used on the human. Stronger and faster than he’d been, the redheaded vampiress twisted free. She grabbed a nearby side table and swung it like a weapon.

“You are not welcome here!”

“We need no welcome.” Bren bounded past Senya. He ducked as she swung the piece of furniture, to hit her across the knees as he swung past her. Her legs buckled and she landed hard on the floor. The table flew from her grasp and smashed on the floor, sending bits flying.

Senya stepped over the mess as Bren held down the struggling redhead. “Bind her, and establish a base outside, well clear of the house.”

He shot her a questioning look, but she only turned to her guards and pointed to one with a bulky bag. “Set the explosives. If we have to do this the hard way, it is going to be spectacularly hard.”

He saluted and moved away, while the redheaded prisoner writhed and shrieked. “You’d better leave before Jorick gets down here!”

Though the name filled Franklin with a secret dread, Senya smiled. “I hope he hurries. I’d like to speak to him.”

“He’ll rip your heart out!” Their prisoner shouted.

“I rather doubt that,” Bren said, applying more pressure on her struggling body. His prisoner kicked shapely legs, and threw her curly tresses from her face. The fire in her eyes made Franklin think of Migina for a moment; furious and hungry for blood.

Senya’s voice pulled him back.

“Franklin! With me!”

He gave a mock salute and hurried to follow her deeper into the house. He could hear fighting outside, then the crash of a window. Was someone jumping in or out?

Either way, they won’t escape us.

A vampiress met them in a room with a piano. Tendrils of black hair had fallen from her updo, and gray eyes flashed fury. “Who are you?”

Senya flicked the medallion around her neck. “You know who we are. Identify yourself.”

The black haired beauty raised her chin a notch. “I am Jesslynn, master of this coven.”

Franklin spoke before he could stop himself, “Master? I understood that was Oren.”

Jesslynn flashed him a cold look. “Oren is my husband. You have not been invited inside. Leave now.”

“That isn’t the way this works,” Senya said. “Where is your prisoner?”

Jesslynn met her eyes, unyielding. “I have no prisoner.”

“Of course you don’t.” Senya motioned to two of her remaining guards. “Take her to Bren. When enough have joined to guard her, return to me. It looks like we’ll need to play hide and seek ourselves.”

Jesslynn snarled as the guards closed in. Though Franklin glanced back to see her knock one away, he had to hurry to keep up with Senya’s deliberate stride. She moved through rooms, kicking aside furniture large enough to conceal vampires. In a sitting room, Greneth and two guards joined them.

“We found a nest of unmarked humans,” the Executioner announced.

Senya frowned. “You’re sure they’re unmarked?”

He snickered. “We checked a couple of the women thoroughly. None of them know anything about a prisoner, of course.”

“Of course.” Senya tapped her fingers. “Tell Bren to oversee a bonfire. We can’t kill the vampires, but unmarked humans are fair game. Perhaps if we burn a few, the others will become more compliant.”

Greneth snapped his fingers and his accompanying guards saluted and hurried outside.

“We took a few vampires as well.” Greneth fell into step with Senya and Franklin. “Zuri’s done better in that department. I imagine being a titan makes it easier.”

Franklin thought he detected a hint of jealousy in the demon eye’s voice.

“Your own ability should be useful enough,” Senya barked. “That is…”

“Not yet,” Greneth said petulantly.

Senya hefted her bloody blade. “I suppose it’s just as well, now that I’ve decided to enjoy this. Come. We’re still missing our Hand of Death.”

They circled back to the hallway, where they met Zuri. “We’ve rounded up most of the coven.”

“And?” Senya asked.

Zuri shifted his weight. “We found something strange upstairs. A nursery. And children’s toys.”

“Children of the servants?” Senya looked to Greneth. “Did you find a baby or children with the humans?”

As he shook his head, Franklin looked to Zuri, but the big vampire only shrugged.

“Never mind. We’re not looking for children. Have you found Oren or Jorick?” Senya asked.

A voice boomed from down the hall. “You have now.”

Franklin’s eyes swung to the sound. A tall broad shouldered vampire stormed toward them, long black hair fanned out behind him like a war cape. An aura of fury and age emanated from him, weaker than Malick’s but no less similar. Though it had been more than a century since Franklin had seen him, he knew who it was.

Jorick.

“About time,” Senya drawled, hand on her hip. “Where’s your fledgling?”

A vampire stormed through a nearby doorway, hands fists and fangs bared in a snarl. Golden blonde hair, the color of a lion’s mane, fell to his shoulders. The fury in his eyes told his name before he spoke.

“I’m here! What business do you have with us!”

The vampires closed like two angry tigers. Franklin hefted the heartbreaker, threateningly. Greneth brandished his blades, and Zuri his fists. Senya dropped into a defensive stance. Her eyes bounced back and forth between the two. “You know why we’re here. I offered to do this the easy way, but your wife wasn’t interested.”

At those words, Oren’s face wadded in fury and he charged. Senya dodged out of the way, leaving him to crash into Greneth. They fell to the floor, but Oren ripped free before the Executioner could do anything.

Jorick sent Senya flying into the nearest wall. Migina’s words ran through Franklin’s mind, “promise you’ll fight only the weaker ones.”

So much for that.

Senya jerked to her feet, wiping blood from her eyes. “I’ve found them!” she bellowed. “To me!”

“You would need reinforcements,” Jorick sneered.

“I don’t know that I need them, but I see no point in wasting my assets,” she replied. “Don’t forget boys, we’re not to kill them.”

Franklin looked at his weapon and then the vampires. If he couldn’t kill them what was he supposed to do with it? Could he chop off limbs, or would that land him in punishment for a lifetime?

On his feet, Greneth went for Oren. Franklin weighed his options, as he sheathed the heartbreaker. He couldn’t kill them, couldn’t maim them. With only his hands as a weapon, Jorick’s fledgling was the safer option. It wasn’t that he was a coward, but…

But I promised.

Oren pounced towards the blonde Executioner, and Franklin took the chance to attack from behind. He slammed Oren across the kidneys, and then in the back of the head. With a roar, his victim swung back to fight him. Greneth used the distraction to trip him.

Franklin jumped to restrain Oren when someone grabbed him from behind and flung him into the staircase railing. Spindles snapped and he banged his forehead on one of the steps. He pulled free, shaking splinters from his hair. His hand went to his weapon, and again he reminded himself that he couldn’t kill them.

I hate this favoritism.

With a snarl of his own, Franklin grabbed the nearest broken spindle. He charged Jorick, swinging the make shift weapon as a bat. His opponent’s growl sent a shiver through his fury, but he ignored it and swung.

It took him a moment to realize his enemy was no longer there. He skidded to a surprised stop, and looked down to see Zuri pinning Jorick to the floor. A titan, Zuri was stronger than even an old vampire who had Malick’s blood.

Oren sprang at them, but Greneth tackled him to the ground in a snarling heap as the other guards charged through the door, some bearing flaming torches.

“You will pay for this!” Jorick seethed through clenched teeth.

Senya, her hair mussed from battle, wiped a smear of blood from her chin. “I doubt that.” A cruel smile flickered over her lips. “I imagine Oren would like to join his wife. Take him outside to the bonfire.”

The amber haired vampire roared. “If she has been harmed-”

“Then you’ll share her fate,” Senya tossed back. “You!” She looked to the guards. “Which one of you is a titan?”

A guard with a torch stepped forward. Senya wrenched the flaming wood from his hand. “Help Zuri with our legendary Hand of Death.”

The guard saluted, and another said, “The Execution Council is here.”

“Good. Perhaps we can get the go ahead to deal with this the right way.”

As three guards took possession of Oren, Greneth leapt up, his eyes alight. “The basement! There’s a secret door!”

Oren roared again, and Greneth gave a smug smile. “That reaction gave it away.”

“Gave what away?” Jorick demanded from under Zuri’s straining bulk.

“Where Claudius’ mate is hidden.” Senya snapped her fingers. “Franklin, Greneth, take guards and check. I’ll speak with the council.” She looked at the torch in her hand and thrust it at Franklin. “Burn down whatever you need to. No one said we couldn’t destroy the den for our trouble.”

Franklin took the flaming wood, then followed Greneth and three of Senya’s mismatched guards. They wound down a set of stairs to a stone basement. A row of coffins gave them an approximate count of the coven members – but two small coffins seemed out of place, one even littler than the other. What would need a box that tiny? A cat or small dog?

Or a baby.

Franklin sucked in a breath at the thought. That Oren’s coven had a secret…but such a secret? An immortal child – or children? Not only was it against The Laws, but it was the ultimate act of cruelty, to trap someone in a child state forever, leaving them with an immature body even as their mind tried to develop. There was a good reason it was illegal, and to do it to a baby…

They stopped next to the boxes. Franklin thought Greneth might have drawn the same conclusion he had, but instead he pointed to the back wall. “It’s behind there. I saw us opening it.”

“How?” Franklin asked.

“I don’t know. I just saw it swinging open. It can’t be that hard.” He forged ahead, and Franklin followed, the torch raised. Firelight danced off the stones as Greneth poked and prodded them. Finally, he grabbed Franklin’s heartbreaker.

“What do you-”

Greneth scraped the blade along the base of the wall, revealing a crack where it met the floor. Franklin shoved the torch at one of Senya’s guards, then jerked the weapon back. He dropped to his knees, and pressed his face near the crack. The scent of human and vampire seeped out. Two…maybe three immortals. But Franklin was starting to doubt it was Claudius’ mate inside.

He stood and motioned the guards. Two of them fell to scraping with their own weapons, while Greneth smacked the stones. At last a soft grinding noise came. Greneth leapt aside as a narrow door sprang open.

Inside a small dark space was a pile of vampires. Greneth jerked a blonde female from the top of the heap. She hissed and fought, and he flung her at the guards. Franklin didn’t watch them try to subdue her; his attention was stolen by the remaining occupants.

A human woman sat on the floor. In her lap was an immortal child, large dark eyes full of fear. Half beneath him, clutched in the woman’s arms, was an infant.

An immortal infant.

Greneth pulled the boy out of the room, and Franklin hurried to grab the human. She fought him with one arm but, encumbered with the baby, her resistance was worthless.

He let her go and she fell back a step. Blue eyes darted around the basement. Greneth looked over her, and the thing she held. “Well, well, what is this? Another human slave left as a final defense? Some good you’ll be!”

With a grin he grabbed a handful of her hair and pulled her head back, exposing her throat. Her knee shot out and caught him in the stomach. It was surprise more than pain that made him let go. Free, she grabbed the small boy’s hand and raced for the stairs.

Franklin moved to follow, but Greneth stopped him with a nod to the approaching footsteps. Senya’s feet came into view, followed by the rest of her.

“I can’t wait for her to see this,” Greneth murmured.

To Senya’s credit, if she was surprised about the children, she hid it well. “I don’t think so.”

She reached for the baby, but the human twisted away.

Franklin saw Senya’s amusement fade to impatience. “It won’t do you any good, human.” She knocked the woman to the floor, barely missing one of the coffins with her head. Franklin moved closer. He could feel the human’s terror, hear her heart pounding, and he knew Senya could too.

The woman’s horror seemed to soothe Senya’s anger, and she snapped her jaws playfully at her victim.

“Let me go!” The prostrate human shouted. “Get off of me!”

Senya smirked and swept to her feet, jerking the baby away. She held it out, and ran her eyes over it. Franklin watched it wave tiny hands and feet, its thin hair tousled curls that would never grow thicker.

With a look of disgust, Senya dumped the baby on him. He stared at the pale, squirming thing’s eyes and shuddered. They seemed to see straight through him, into his head, into his soul, but instead of acknowledging the revelations, the babe’s expression was blank, empty.

Soulless.

“Take them to the council to be discussed,” Senya ordered.

“No! Leave them alone!” the human cried. With a roll of her eyes, Senya kicked her in the stomach hard enough to shut her up. “This one is mine.”

Franklin started up the stairs, the baby in his arms. Behind him he could hear the little boy shout, “No! She belongs to Jorick! He’s marked her neck! You can’t hurt her!”

Franklin flinched in surprise, and looked back to see Senya crouch down to check.

“Well, well. The boy tells the truth. It seems Jorick’s got himself a pet.” She dropped the woman’s head. “Take her upstairs and see what is to be done with her.”

The Hand of Death with a human pet? That went against the legends. But then, so did his involvement in this. Franklin wished silently that it made sense. Then he wouldn’t feel so uneasy.

Outside, Bren and the guards had built a large bonfire. Around it were gathered the rest of the coven, most restrained or unconscious, and the remaining guards. Franklin’s eyes found Jorick first, the Hand of Death, held back by the two titans, both straining against his efforts. Jesslynn was also held, her arms behind her back. Her eyes snapped like the flames of the bonfire, but some of the heat turned into despair when she saw his burden.

As Greneth said, the reaction gave it away.

She’s the mother.

He kept the thought to himself, and looked to the redhead who lay on the ground, her hands tied. He wondered if she was the sister that had caused the trouble to begin with. If he had to choose a woman from the lineup, she’d be the one he’d pick.

Oren fought against his guards, one of the regulars, and the last of Senya’s favorites. The bag he’d carried earlier was gone. Franklin wondered about the explosives Senya had mentioned.

“Come to join the fun, Senya?” her favorite called.

“I wouldn’t miss my favorite part of this.” Louder, she announced, “I’ve brought the last of them.”

The newest prisoners were dropped to the ground. The blonde vampiress they’d pulled from the secret room wrestled and fought like a hellcat as her captors tied her hands. She snarled and snapped, kicking and writhing. The fury in her eyes wasn’t normal. It took Franklin a moment to figure out what was wrong with it.

There’s no sanity there, he realized. Most anger was tinted with cunning, with machinations, but hers was like an animal’s, just raw instinct.

This coven is insane.

The boy crawled to her, and Franklin looked down at his own burden, at the soulless, terrifying eyes. With a shudder, he dumped it on Bren.

“What in the hell is this?”

Franklin didn’t bother to answer, because he had no explanation.

The infant broke its eerie silence to scream, a long, soul curdling wail that drew the agonized attention of its mother. Franklin stepped away quickly. He’d rather guard the hellcat than that thing.

“Is anyone else hiding inside?” Senya shouted.

Franklin looked to Bren. Had they found Claudius’ mate yet?

As if he sensed the question, Bren shook his head, his nose wrinkled in disgust at the screaming thing in his hands.

“Let them go!” Jesslynn cried.

“That didn’t answer the question,” Bren called over the wails. “I guess we’ll have to take precautions against any surprises.”

One of the guards headed to the house. Franklin realized what was coming a second before the explosion ripped through the night, sending a shower of bricks and embers.

Franklin swiped burning ash from his coat and looked to Bren. “Arowenia?”

“She’s not here,” Bren muttered. “They’re getting ready to interrogate the humans about it.”

Franklin followed Bren’s gaze to see guards dragging a human towards the bonfire. A too big maid’s uniform, weirdly comical considering the situation, flapped around her body as she screamed.


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